Stuart Davis, American Modernist Painter

stuart davis
Ralph Morse / Getty Images

Stuart Davis (1892-1964) was a prominent American modernist painter. He began working in the realist Ashcan School style, but exposure to European modernist painters in the Armory Show led to a distinctive personal modernist style that influenced the later development of pop art.

Fast Facts: Stuart Davis

  • Occupation: Painter
  • Movement: Abstract art, modernism, cubism
  • Born: December 7, 1892 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Died: June 24, 1964 in New York, New York
  • Parents: Helen Stuart Foulke and Edward Wyatt Davis
  • Spouses: Bessie Chosak (died 1932), Roselle Springer
  • Child: George Earle Davis
  • Selected Works: "Lucky Strike" (1921), "Swing Landscape" (1938), "Deuce" (1954)
  • Notable Quote: "I don't want people to copy Matisse or Picasso, although it is entirely proper to admit their influence. I don't make paintings like theirs. I make paintings like mine."

Early Life and Education

The son of sculptor Helen Stuart Foulke and newspaper art editor Edward Wyatt Davis, Stuart Davis grew up surrounded by visual art. He developed a serious interest in drawing by age sixteen and started illustrating adventure stories for his younger brother, Wyatt. Davis' family moved from his childhood home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to New Jersey, where he got to know a group of his father's artist colleagues known as "the Eight." This group included Robert Henri, George Luks, and Everett Shinn.

stuart davis bar house
"Bar House, Newark" (1913). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Stuart Davis began his formal art training as a student of Robert Henri, who became the leader of the Ashcan School, an American art movement known for focusing on painting scenes of daily life in New York City. They took much of their inspiration from Walt Whitman's poetry in Leaves of Grass.

The Armory Show

In 1913, Davis was one of the youngest artists featured in the groundbreaking Armory Show, the first extensive exhibition of modern art in the U.S. First showing at New York's 69th Regiment Armory, the exhibition then traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago and Copley Society of Art in Boston.

stuart davis the mellow pad
"The Mellow Pad" (1951). Brooklyn Museum / Wikimedia Commons

While Stuart Davis exhibited realist paintings in the Ashcan style, he studied the works of European modernist artists included in the exhibition, from Henri Matisse to Pablo Picasso. After the Armory Show, Davis became a dedicated modernist. He took cues from the cubist movement in Europe to move toward a more abstract style of painting.

Colorful Abstraction

Stuart Davis' mature style of painting began to develop in the 1920s. He became friends with other influential American artists including Charles Demuth and Arshile Gorky as well as poet William Carlos Williams. His work began with realistic elements but he then abstracted them with bright colors and geometrical edges. Davis also painted in series, making his work parallel to musical variations on a theme.

stuart davis swing landscape
"Swing Landscape" (1938). Robert Alexander / Getty Images

In the 1930s, Davis painted murals for the Federal Art Project, a program of the Works Progress Administration. One of those, the monumental painting "Swing Landscape" shows the style of Stuart Davis in full flower. He began with a depiction of the waterfront of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and then added the energy of the jazz and swing music he loved. The result is a highly personal explosion of color and geometrical forms.

By the 1950s, Davis' work evolved to a focus on lines and a style influenced by drawing. The painting "Deuce" is an example of the shift. Gone was the cacophony of bright colors. In its place was a lively set of vibrant lines and shapes still echoing lessons learned from the European cubism of the early 20th century.

Later Career

After he established himself as a vital member of the New York avant-garde painting scene of the mid-20th century, Stuart Davis began teaching. He worked at the Art Student's League, the New School for Social Search, and then Yale University. As an instructor, Davis directly influenced a new generation of American artists.

stuart davis nightlife
"Nightlife" (1962). Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 2.0

Although his late-career work continued to incorporate abstract elements, Stuart Davis never moved completely away from referencing real life. He rejected the abstract expressionism that dominated the American art world of the 1950s.

In the early 1960s, Davis' health quickly declined until he suffered a stroke in 1964 and passed away. His death came just as art critics saw the influence of his work in a new movement, pop art.


stuart davis deuce
"Deuce" (1954). Andreas Solaro / Getty Images

One of Stuart Davis' most lasting contributions was his ability to take lessons learned from European movements in painting and create a distinctly American twist on the ideas. His bold, graphical paintings contain echoes of the work of Fauvists like Henri Matisse and the cubist experiments of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. However, the end product finds inspiration in American life and architecture, a factor that makes Davis' work unique.

Pop artists Andy Warhol and David Hockney celebrated Stuart Davis' blending of content from commercial advertisements with the shapes of everyday objects that he first depicted in the 1920s. Today, many art historians consider Davis' work to be proto-pop art.


  • Haskell, Barbara. Stuart Davis: In Full Swing. Prestel, 2016.
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Lamb, Bill. "Stuart Davis, American Modernist Painter." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Lamb, Bill. (2020, August 29). Stuart Davis, American Modernist Painter. Retrieved from Lamb, Bill. "Stuart Davis, American Modernist Painter." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).